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I had an email from a musician today who said he was struggling a little with the idea of giving away mp3s. It’s a really common issue, and so I thought I’d share my response.

1) You’re not giving away music, you’re giving away RECORDINGS of your music;
2) Don’t try to make money from your music, make money BECAUSE of your music;
3) Economics works differently for bits than it does for atoms.

Example: I wrote a book called The 20 Things You Must Know About Music Online ( You can download it for free. For someone who writes words rather than plays music, that’s like an album.

I’ve never made money out of that book, because I’ve never charged for it. But I’ve certainly made money because of it. That’s a recording of my writing and thinking – not my writing and thinking itself.

It doesn’t cost me anything extra in time, energy, talent or investment whether one person downloads it or ten million people download it. I don’t have to manufacture any more copies. And the more I give it away for free, the more I get to charge for REAL stuff – like my time, my physical presence (speaking engagements, etc), other stuff that I write for print publications (magazines, books, newspapers – even other websites), and so on.

Okay – so it’s not the best analogy in the world – but it helps some people get their heads around the free mp3s thing.

Does that make sense?
My response was intended as provocation, rather than statement of fact (that is: “try thinking about it this way…”) – but actually, this holds true in most cases I’ve encountered.

Of course, there’s a great deal more to be said here – and this is not true for all people in all situations. I’d really appreciate your take on it in the comments. There will be as many people for whom giving away mp3s will not make sense. It depends entirely on your strategy, your audience, the unique characteristics of your music business and musical activities.

But giving mp3s away is a very common practice that not everyone immediately grasps as a viable business strategy.

Be very clear: I said business strategy – not business model. Giving stuff away for free is NOT a business model. You’ll find it very hard to make money if all you do is give things away. But equally it’s very hard to make money UNLESS you give things away.

As usual, Chris Anderson is quite good on this stuff.

Have a great new year, won’t you?